By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
When the L.A. Times published A regional map for this year’s Festival of Books, it represented the city of Pasadena with a drawing of a KPCC radio tower and the name Larry Mantle, a moniker synonymous with all good things that spring from the Pasadena City College station. On the air, Mantle’s award-winning daily three-hour Air Talk presents a wide range of guests dissecting current events. Behind the scenes, Mantle, who is the station’s news and program director has played a crucial role in transforming 89.3 FM from a smalltime operator to the nation’s 10th-largest public-radio station. "Larry really is the heart and soul of the programming," says Cindy Young, KPCC acting general manager. "He defines what goes on here."
But faced with a budget and programming impasse with the Pasadena Area Community College District Board of Trustees, Mantle is considering leaving the station he’s shepherded for 15 years. The dispute came to a head when district trustees balked at a recent offer from Minnesota Public Radio to form a partnership with KPCC that would infuse the station with cash, increase student training and provide for a station-sponsored news team. MPR, which is best known for Garrison Keillor’s wildly popular A Prairie Home Companion, owns and operates 32 stations in six states, all clustered around the network’s home state. KPCC would be the largest station in the MPR network and the first outside of the upper Midwest. This proposed entity, called Southern California Public Radio, would allow KPCC to add innovative programs like This American Life, which Mantle had been pining for since it first became available several years ago. With MPR’s resources, Mantle says, the station could easily up its 300,000 weekly listenership, giving rivals KCRW and KUSC a run for their money. "It would be an incredible opportunity," Mantle says. "We could continue building the kind of station we’ve been working on for years."
The general feeling at the station, observes Young, is that KPCC is "the lowest priority at the college." Over spring break, the school shut off the electricity in the building that houses the station’s satellite hookup, causing a 20-minute blackout of the NPR news feed. And the seven-member college board refuses to let the station cancel unpopular programs such as Tibor Paul’s European Sunday Concert— four hours each week of song and chat broadcast entirely in German.
As Young and Mantle see it, the MPR deal would be a lifesaver. But there is one catch: The district would have to hand over the license for the station to this new entity, a transfer board members are highly reluctant to make. In response to the MPR bid, the board directed an advisory team made up of a TV attorney, a TV-movie producer, an in-flight airline-video producer, a former commercial talk-radio programmer and a college public relations officer to select a consultant to solicit other offers. If the makeup of the advisory team is any indication, the public-radio integrity of other proposals is not a high priority. And the committee was selected without input from the KPCC staff. "It’s highly insulting," Mantle says, "to be treated as though we know nothing about radio after having taken KPCC from a blip on the screen to one of the largest stations in the country."
College president James Kossler says that several other groups that have requested anonymity have expressed interest in leasing the station. "There’s nothing wrong with Minnesota Public Radio’s proposal per se," he says. "The board just wants to do its due diligence to see if there’s a better offer." Two of the three board members who make up the subcommittee dealing with the MPR proposal refused to be interviewed for this story, referring all calls to Kossler. The third member, Susanna Miele, who is up for re-election to her fifth four-year term in Novemeber, confirmed the board’s reticence. "We’re being careful," she said. "We want to protect the license. I totally recognize the asset for what it is and we want to protect it."
In the meantime, Mantle is cooling his heels, hoping the district will come around, but fearing the worst. "Unless there are resources allocated to pay people properly, to staff properly and to get more resources into what we’re doing," he says, "I don’t see a place for me here."